Times Higher Education’s most-read articles of 2021

Reopening of international study opportunities looms large as Covid-19 continues to dominate news agenda

December 30, 2021
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Our annual most-read list always covers key concerns of Times Higher Education readers – workload, careers, and academic freedom, to give just three examples – but often seems to say something more tangible about the year just past. The 2020 list, for instance, was dominated by stories about Covid-19. The pandemic also looms large in this year’s edition, but with a significantly different bent, with the focus shifting from the shock of campus shutdowns to the question of when major university sectors would reopen to international students. Would-be overseas learners’ interest in articles on this topic no doubt reflected the isolation and desperation many of them felt as border closures and travel restrictions chopped and changed in the face of a rapidly evolving threat from the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the list as a whole also reflects the diversity of THE’s journalism. Perhaps this offers a glimmer of hope that 2022 will be the year that some sort of normality returns – for academics, university professionals and students, including those who travel to study.

15. Four in 10 UK PhD students ‘at high risk of suicide’, says study

Articles on the welfare of doctoral students always attract significant attention, reflecting the particular pressures on this group of learners. This story, reporting on research suggesting that a significant proportion of UK PhD students were at risk of taking their own lives, put these issues into sharp focus, and came as funders sought to finally take action to improve the doctoral experience.

14. Harvard moves Chinese language programme to Taiwan

The shifting sands of the relationship between China and the West featured regularly in THE’s journalism during 2021, but this story – reporting that Harvard University would move its intensive Chinese-language programme from Beijing to Taiwan because of alleged difficulties operating in mainland China – particularly piqued readers’ interest. Jennifer Liu, head of Chinese languages at Harvard, said that the move reflected what she felt was a less friendly environment for US institutions in China in recent years.

13. Polish pressure forces Holocaust historian to self-censor

Few THE articles attract more commentary on social media than those exploring the Polish right’s attempts to enforce a narrative of exclusive victimhood in relation to the Holocaust, downplaying accounts of local complicity unearthed by some historians. This article, based on one France-based researcher saying that she would tone down her upcoming book and shy away from naming names for fear of legal action, got a lot of clicks too.

12. Covid-hit British Council sells Indian IELTS business to IDP

It has been a difficult year for the British Council, which was forced to close 20 offices around the world as part of a restructuring programme triggered by cuts to the UK overseas aid budget and was stripped of the contract to operate the Turing overseas mobility scheme. This story examined some of the fallout from these difficulties, with the council opting to sell the Indian arm of its IELTS English language testing business for £130 million.

11. German universities’ teaching in English is unavoidably flawed

Is it a good thing if European universities offer more degrees taught using English? It is a question that THE has explored repeatedly, and the answer offered in this opinion piece – by Brian Bloch, lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster – was a resounding “no”. Limited fluency among teachers in Germany and concerns about the marginalisation of national culture could lead to a backlash against institutions’ pitch to the international market, the article warns.

10. MIT digital learning dean quits as edX sale backlash grows

The sale of non-profit online course platform edX to for-profit competitor 2U was big news in the summer, but not everybody was happy about it. As this scoop by our North America editor Paul Basken revealed, Krishna Rajagopal announced his resignation as dean of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – which founded edX with Harvard University – after telling colleagues that he had “serious continuing reservations about the path forward for edX that MIT has announced”.

9. Quarantine? Depends on students’ citizenship, says Australia

One of the frustrations of the Covid pandemic has been the apparent contradictions thrown up by hasty changes to restrictions seeking to respond to a fast-moving virus. This article highlighted how the first planeload of international students to reach Sydney in 21 months faced spending their initial fortnight in quarantine – a prospect other foreigners from the same embarkation point were set to avoid.

8. Servant leaders should not be slaves to their institutions

What should higher education leaders do in the presence of such pain, chaos and wilful ignorance that surfaced during the pandemic, asked this opinion piece by consultant Kathy Johnson Bowles. They should start acting upon principles rather than the politics of power and place, she argued, becoming teacher-activists who dare to disrupt, employ the language and logic of change to serve a greater good, help individuals rise from poverty and realise their potential for prosperity.

7. Australian borders shut on the eve of their opening

For much of the year it was a question of “will they, won’t they” when it came to the reopening of Australia’s borders to international students. In this story it was very nearly will and then won’t, as Canberra deferred the reopening by a fortnight with barely 30 hours to go, in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant. Australia eventually welcomed international students back on 15 December.

6. Nicholas Hitchon: the ‘Seven Up’ scientist known to millions

Interviewing academics is one of the joys of writing for THE but this article profiled a researcher best known not for his professional accomplishments but as “Nick”, one of the stars of the Up documentaries. Nicholas Hitchon, who has worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1982, said that he did not think of the series “as my story any longer – it’s everyone’s story; it shows the human condition”.

5. Three hard truths I learned before moving to a non-academic career

Although many PhD students and postdocs aspire to careers in research, it’s a sad fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go round. In this blog, former lecturer – and now user experience expert – Janelle Ward shared her insights into the transition out of academia, telling peers that employers will value experience more than doctorates.

4. Australia must start readmitting international students

As many Western sectors prepared to welcome back international students for a new academic year, anxiety grew in Australia over the summer as the country’s borders remained closed. “The strategy of Covid Zero, aided by harsh lockdowns and closed borders, has become a mantra indifferent to distinctions and disproportionate in application,” wrote RMIT University lecturer Binoy Kampmark, urging the embrace of vaccine passports to allow the return of overseas learners.

3. Australia plots international education restart from the bunker

By August, Australian international education policy was in flux, with representative groups plotting out practical steps to revive the Covid-struck sector as new waves of infection forced much of the country back under lockdown. Plans under consideration included dedicated charter flights, a digital vaccine passport, and visa fee waivers, reported our Asia-Pacific editor John Ross.

2. Workaholic academics need to stop taking pride in their burnout

Academic workload is another staple of THE most-read lists, and with good reason, in light of surveys suggesting excessive levels of overtime across the sector. In this opinion piece, Fleur Jongepier and Mathijs van de Sande urged scholars to take a stand: “Make a real effort to work only the hours you’re paid for (and let the shit hit the fan from time to time); go on holidays (and stay true to your auto reply); avoid bragging about how busy you are (often a twisted form of virtue signalling); leave meetings early to pick up your kids, go on a date or visit friends (and be open about having a life); don’t hire the workaholic with huge publication lists but the team player who wouldn’t be a passive bystander; tell your students that academic excellence, or writing a PhD thesis, does not require 60- let alone 80-hour workweeks; tell them that academia needs people who have rich non-academic lives. And last but not least, publish less and complain more to those in positions of power.”

1. UK relaxes post-study work visa rules for remote learners

This January article is not long by THE standards, coming in at 283 words, and couldn’t claim to be either a big scoop or the result of extensive journalistic investigation. But its appearance at the top of this year’s most-read list reflects would-be international students’ keen interest in access to major study markets as the coronavirus pandemic rumbled on. The story explained that international students who were studying remotely would still be eligible to apply for the UK’s new two-year post-study work visa as long as their degree did not finish this year, under a concession announced by the Home Office.

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